Records: Lakers 29-30 (9th in the West), Hawks 33-24 (4th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.6 (8th in the NBA), Hawks 102.8 (13th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.6 (18th in the NBA), Hawks 101.2 (10th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Dwight Howard
Hawks: Jeff Teague, DeShawn Stevenson, Kyle Korver, Josh Smith, Al Horford
Injuries: Lakers: Pau Gasol (out), Jordan Hill (out for the season); Hawks: Lou Williams (out for the season)
The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers have inched their way back to only a game under .500 on the season by winning 4 of their last 5 and 10 of their last 15. Maybe even more impressive is that they’ve not lost 2 in a over a month, finding their stride (and a way to win games) right as they’ve needed to.
The story on what they’re doing well is pretty much known at this point but bears repeating: they’ve been much better at sharing the ball on offense and, through better performance on that side of the ball, have found a way to limit their exposure to what they don’t do well on defense. They’ll still struggle with the P&R on D, but as long as they can continue to control tempo on offense and not be forced into bad shots, they can limit the turnovers and long jumpers that fuel opponents’ transition chances.
Offensively they remain a team that’s finding a balance as Kobe wing post ups and isolations and the Nash/Howard pick and roll are both staples capable of producing good sets. Add in those pillars with a resurgent bench of Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, and Antawn Jamison and the team has finally seemed to sort out roles and find a comfort zone in how they need to play each night. There still needs to be a better understanding of how the entire team can work in and out of their sets in ways that complement each other — Kobe isos often don’t lead to passes that fuel P&R’s or vice versa — but they’re getting closer.
The Hawks Coming in: Tonight is game 5 of a 6 game road trip for the Hawks — a trip in which they’ve 3 of 4 so far, with their only loss coming to the Suns on Friday. In their last 10 games, they’re 7-3 and have been playing some pretty good ball with wins over Jazz, Mavs, and Grizzlies in that stretch.
Key to their strong play is their big three of Jeff Teague, Josh Smith, and Al Horford. All three have been playing some of their best ball of the season, posting impressive numbers and having huge impact on each game they play. Horford’s numbers have been particularly impressive over their last 10, scoring nearly 23 points a night with 11 rebounds, over 3 assists and over 3 combined blocks and steals. When you add Horford’s all around play to Smith’s 19 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists, this is a fantastic front court duo that is playing as well or better than any other in the league. As for Teague, he’s really come into his own lately, scoring 17 points a night on 48% shooting and handing out 9 assists over that same stretch. He’s been doing a great job of balancing his own scoring with playmaking for others and operating as a better floor general overall.
This solid play, however, does look to be the Hawks ceiling and they’ll have some hard decisions to make in the off-season. Smith, though playing fantastic now, is a free agent and has already acknowledged his desire to earn a max contract. Teague will also be a free agent (though restricted) and he could command a big offer sheet on the open market that Hawks can either match or not. With Horford being the only major player under contract for next season, Atlanta will have a ton of cap space to make a run at other free agents (including Dwight Howard) but will have to decide what type of team they want to build for next year and the future.
All that said, this year they’re showing that even by trading Joe Johnson, they’re right back in the mix as a playoff team and one that can even have home court in the 1st round. They’ve done quite well this year and GM Danny Ferry and head coach Larry Drew deserve a lot of credit for that.
Keys to game: With the Hawks playing as well as they have been (excluding the loss to the Suns), the Lakers are going to have their hands full on both ends of the floor. They are a top 13 team in offensive and defensive efficiency and offer anchors on both sides of the ball that the Lakers are going to have to counter to get the win.
On offense, the main advantage the Lakers have is with Kobe Bryant. The Hawks don’t have a great option to defend him and will have to rely on the trio of DeShawn Stevenson, Devin Harris, and Dhantay Jones to get the stops they need against Kobe. With #24 playing at the level he has been lately, none of this trio is particularly intimidating on that end of the floor and he should look to attack whoever is defending him in order to get himself and his teammates going by creating good shots. If Kobe can work the post well he can force double teams and then he can shift to the weak side of the floor in the P&R and let Nash and Howard try to get going running that action.
They will have their challenges in the P&R, however, as the Hawks possess some good ingredients to slow this action. Al Horford is one of the better (and smarter) defensive big men in the league and he has the ability to hedge and recover in a way that thwarts this action (not to mention how Horford can also play some very good post defense on Howard). Add in the mobile Josh Smith roaming on the weak side to challenge the dive man and any shot taken at the rim and Howard is going to have a tough time getting on track when diving. That said, if Dwight sets good screens he can free up Nash to try and get into the lane to either get a shot off for himself or draw enough attention to hit open shooters outside. The Lakers’ success on this action, then, will likely be determined on whether Earl Clark and Ron (not to mention Jamison and Meeks) can hit their jumpers. If they do, the Lakers can take control offensively and everything will fall into place. If they can’t, don’t be surprised to see the offense struggle.
Defensively, the Lakers will have to deal with a strong P&R attack that the Hawks offer. Teague and Horford make a great pairing in this action with the PG’s ability to drive or hit his jumper and Horford a dual threat of popping out for the open J or diving to the rim where he can also score inside. Horford is particularly dangerous as a jump shooter so Howard will need to hedge on Teague with the back side defenders rotating to Horford to disrupt his shot or feinting in that direction to give Dwight enough time to recover on his own. Either way, communication will be key and the rotations will need to be sharp.
Josh Smith and his all purpose game are also a big key to the Hawks attack and slowing him down is important. Smith is an excellent passer from all over the floor and his ability to play high low or pick out cutters from the perimeter can really fuel their offense. Smith’s ability to drive and work close to the basket to finish must be respected, so keeping him on the perimeter by playing off him is the best strategy. However, since he’s such a good passer, the off-ball defense must be very good as there will be plenty of passing angles for him to exploit if he’s receiving soft coverage out there. Smith too is fantastic in the open court both as a finisher and as someone who can lead the break himself. When he gets defensive rebounds, he is a threat to push the ball himself and the Lakers must respect that ability hustle to get back when he starts to make a push.
This game offers the Lakers their first chance to get back to .500 since last calendar year (December 28th). The Hawks are playing well, but this is a corner the Lakers need to turn sooner rather than later if they expect to keep their playoff hopes alive. Because regardless of what the team in front of them do, the Lakers need to take care of business on their end and control what they can by winning their own games.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.